From the time the Brooklyn Nets gathered for training camp, depth looked like a calling card for this team; the type of thing that would give coach Kenny Atkinson options and the ability to weather busy schedule stretches or injuries.
The Nets are dealing with the latter right now, with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson sidelined along with Caris LeVert and Allen Crabbe, three players that have been regular starters for the Nets over the last two seasons. As they've come off a stretch of nine wins in 10 games that boosted them into the Eastern Conference playoff mix, they've continued to compete and play solidly, whether Atkinson is calling on developing rookies like Rodions Kurucs or some of the veterans acquired in the offseason who have delivered exactly the type of depth and leadership the Nets were looking for.
"We have guys on our bench that have produced in this league," said Atkinson. "It's not guys that are there, 'oh, I wonder if he can produce.' I think in the past it was a little bit that. We weren't sure. Guys were trying. These guys are true and tried NBA players. We can replace with a good NBA player."
It's a profile that fits for Shabazz Napier, the sparkplug guard who came to Brooklyn for his fifth NBA season coming off his best professional year in Portland. Napier took the challenge of signing on with a guard-heavy squad and has been ready to go in any situation.
"The way I just go about it is, I work hard in practice, put in the extra work with the extra work group," said Napier. "I basically mentally try to prepare myself to play all 48 minutes. I've been this way since I was younger. I've been in the NBA for five years now and each year it's been like this. It's not something easy you can mentally prepare yourself for, because I don't know. I've been in situations where I've played first quarter after the seven-minute mark or a situation where my first time getting in was after the fourth quarter five-minute mark. You never know. You've just got to try to be professional about it. If your numbers called, hopefully you can bring whatever the team needs. That's about it."
As the Nets have adjusted lineups and rotations on the fly, Napier's minutes have risen and fallen. But he was playing steadily through Brooklyn's first 25 games until finding himself out of the rotation for much of December. Napier averages 15.3 minutes per game when he plays, but over the course of nine games he played a total of 18 minutes in four appearances.
That little drought came to an end last Friday, when Atkinson inserted Napier in the third quarter against the Charlotte Hornets, looking for something to get the offense going. Napier shot a perfect 5-for-5, scoring 11 points as the Nets came back from 15 down to within five before the Hornets pulled away.
The following night, with starting guard D'Angelo Russell being held out for rest, Napier matched his career high with 32 points plus seven assists against the NBA's third-rated defensive team, the Milwaukee Bucks. On Wednesday night, Napier played 24 minutes as part of a scorching Nets offense and finished with 12 points.
Over the last three games, Napier is 19 for 31 overall (61.2 percent) and 7 for 11 from 3-point range (63.6) percent.
"Whether you have the ball in your hand or not, it's up to you whether or not to go out there and find what the teams been missing if you're asked to be called upon," said Napier. "That's whether or not you're watching the game. Sometimes you're able to be in a position where you did everything right, you've been watching the game, coaches have been harping on a couple key things and you go in there and you do it. Other teams you're not prepared when you're not watching the game, zoning out because I'm upset, and you get in there and you do the same thing everybody else is doing and then you lose an opportunity to play in the next game. You have to be locked in no matter what the situation is happening. Hopefully you make the right decisions. Only thing you can bring to that opportunity is effort."
For the season, Napier is averaging 8.3 points in 15.3 minutes per game, a per 36 scoring rate of 19.5. He's also shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, which fits right into the type of triple-threat guards the Nets feature in Spencer Dinwiddie and D'Angelo Russell, able to shoot, drive and create shots for others.
Ironically, some of Napier's opportunity has come from injuries to forwards, not guards. With DeMarre Carroll out earlier in the season and Hollis-Jefferson injured last Saturday in Milwaukee, the Nets tend to fill those minutes with guard depth and slide players down a position or two.
Against New Orleans on Wednesday, Napier played seven minutes alongside both Russell and Dinwiddie, two other players accustomed to a lead guard role.
"I think that's part of, we've got to be creative with our lineups," said Atkinson. "It does help that Spencer almost has legitimate 3-man size, he's 6-6. And D'Lo's got good size. Shabazz is kind of the smaller guy in that lineup. It's not like we're throwing three 5-11 guys out there. Didn't feel overmatched out there. And then obviously having three ball-handlers, it's funny how things present itself during the year. We tried it and it looked good."
"We did it in Portland with (Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum)," said Napier. "Obviously those are two elite guards who score the ball a lot. Being here, I feel like, what it did in Portland, what it can do here is it can open up the floor. Can't play off of D'Lo because he can shoot. Can't play off myself, can't play off of Spencer because we can also shoot. Opens up the floor for driving guards, D'Lo, Spencer, myself, are all those type of guards. Spaces the floor, which in this offense is very highly predicated on guards being able to create. It creates a lot of things offensively."